Store managers can teach us about leadership

Written by Steve Dodd

This week we have a blog by Steve Dodd.

In some circles retailing is regarded as a second rate career.  Poor academic results?  No ambition?  Didn’t try hard at school?  Well, you could always work in a shop!

It’s true, many retail leaders did not start out with great academic credentials but there is something about the retail world that can bring out the best in people.  Being the boss of even a small store can be a great training ground for leadership.  It’s the corporate made small.  You manage a business with finance, marketing, human resources, operations and technology issues.  You are accountable for delivering results.

In a long career in retailing, I found it interesting to observe how certain store managers seemed to do especially well.  I wanted to understand what it was they did that made them successful.  In a series of in depth conversations with high performing store managers I asked them what it was they did?  In this article I describe the “store manager”.  He or she is a fictional retail manager, based on the many real retail managers whose approach to leadership is a model for leaders everywhere. You might like to consider how you can learn from “store manager” by answering the questions I pose at the end of each section.

I’ve simplified what the store manager does by describing how they use senses and routines.  I describe how the store manager uses senses under the headings of vision, talking and listening and feelings.  I then describe how the store manager uses routines in relation to themselves and others.

Vision

From time to time you find store managers just standing and watching.  They seem to be looking at customers, displays, checkouts, staff and more.  They are not just observing.  They are visualising how they want it to look.  They have an internal reference for how they want the store to be.  They picture the displays, the cleanliness, the flow of customers, the light and colour and the visual impact they are seeking to create.  The specific style varies with retailer but the store manager has this visualisation in their head and constantly updates it by observing good practice, even taking pictures or making sketches of ideas.   It’s not just at the level of the display.  It’s the whole look and feel of the store together with the business results they aim to achieve.  They then compare this detailed visualisation with what they see in their store.  They are observant too.  They look closely.  They notice detail.  Anything that is inconsistent with the vision stands out for them like a bum note in a familiar tune.  It just doesn’t feel right until the reality matches the vision.  This discomfort with a miss match and the reward of meeting the vision on a daily basis motivates them towards achieving more.

Do you have a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve and how you want to achieve it?  Do you compare your vision with reality?  Does what you are delivering feel like all the notes are in tune?

Talking and listening

When they are not standing and watching what is happening, store managers are chatting.  That’s talking and listening.  It’s all day, everyday and with everybody.  They are talking about the vision and updating the vision.  They “walk the store” regularly and they chat to their people about what is working and what isn’t.   Store managers ask questions, listen and give feedback.  They know what an impact they can have by recognising the contribution of even the most junior of staff.  Displays, financial results, checkout service, customer complaints, operational efficiency, safety or hygiene might be the topic for the moment but the constant theme is helping people see the vision and helping them see the current reality.  Store managers ask for ideas and listen to suggestions.  They share their enthusiasm for achieving the vision.

Do your people understand the vision?  Do your people know you are open to their ideas?  Do you really listen to them?  Is your enthusiasm for the vision catching?

Feelings

Store managers maintain a consistent, day in day out, enthusiasm for achieving their vision.  They do this with a combination of pride and fun.  They are constantly looking for short-term challenges to motivate themselves and their people towards the long term vision.  Todays’ sales target; completing a task on schedule; learning a new skill; all serve as opportunities for recognition and building self-esteem.  Public praise, given with integrity, feels great.  The good feelings are addictive.  Making some of the challenges feel like a game also helps maintain the motivation.  When the sales figures are the score and the store is the pitch there is fun to be had working together to win.  Checking the sales figures regularly and sharing them with the team is part of the game.  They help everybody see that they all make a difference and can share in the pride and the fun.

Do you find things that make you feel good about your work?  Do you help people feel proud of what they achieve?  Do you make it fun?

Routine for self

Store managers have a strict routine.  The day starts with questions.  Do I have to react to the weather?  What’s coming up on the calendar that will affect shoppers?  What will my customers want to buy today?  It may be a different set of questions depending on the retail business but it’s a set of questions that form part of a routine.  Later in the day there are routines for “walking the floor”, meeting key people, hand overs, checks and more.  Store managers maintain a consistent standard of performance day in, day out, creating and sharing the vision, talking and listening to people and building feelings of pride and fun.  To begin with it’s difficult to maintain.  When you first learned to drive, remember how tiring a half hour lesson was.  After practice and persistence you drive the car without thinking about every gear change and peddle press.  Store managers develop the habits of creating and sharing the vision, noticing what’s happening around them, talking and listening to people and building feelings of pride and fun.  It becomes habitual.  More than this, because it gets results, it’s re-enforced and feels great to do it.

Do you recognise the need to practice and be persistent in developing good habits?

Routine for others

Store managers use routine to help them develop their people too.  People get to know what their store manager expects from them.  They know they will be taking about the vision and current performance.  Their store managers will want to listen to their ideas.  They expect to be challenged.  They want to do it too because of the recognition, fun and growth in self-esteem that comes with achievement.  The people begin to do this for themselves.  Store managers talk less and listen more.  Their people grow and contribute more.

Do your people check their own performance?  Do you ask questions, listen and give feedback?  Do your people grow?

Steve Dodd